The nightmare is over now. Alfredo Simon wakes up in a cushy bed every morning and goes to work at one of the most beautiful spring training venues in baseball.
It is quite a contrast to the place where he spent most of spring training last year.
"It was the worst place I've ever been in my life," he said.
Prisons are like that. Simon sat in a cell in the Dominican Republic for three months, waiting to find out whether he would stand trial for a Jan. 1 shooting that left one man dead and another wounded in the town of Luperon. The case dragged on until he was cleared in November, but it was during those three months that the dark thoughts came and wouldn't go away.
"People think I killed somebody," he said, "but that guy was a friend of mine, and I didn't do that thing. I was just really sad because I lost spring training and I thought my career was over … so my mind was pretty crazy."
It was a star-crossed career already. The Orioles pulled Simon out of the Mexican League after he had knocked around the minors and the Latin baseball circuit for nearly a decade. He originally signed with the Philadelphia Phillies under an assumed name (Carlos Cabrera) and shaved 21 months off his real age, then stopped briefly in the Orioles organization as a Rule 5 draft pick in 2006 before eventually making his major league debut with the team in 2008.
Simon had already cleared another potentially career-ending obstacle when he came back in near-record time from Tommy John elbow ligament-reconstruction surgery to re-establish his upper-90s fastball and make 49 appearances out of the major league bullpen two seasons ago, but this time, it wasn't just his baseball career that was hanging by a thread.
No one seems to know exactly what happened on the last night of 2010. Shots were fired into the air during the New Year's celebration. Michel Castillo Almonte was killed. Simon was identified as the chief suspect and jailed pending an investigation but eventually was released and made 16 starts for the Orioles with a potential manslaughter charge hanging over his head.
Surely, that was preferable to the large prison cell he shared with 35 other inmates — and left long enough only for meals — but the uncertainty was almost overwhelming.
"Last year, I was worrying about everything," he said. "This year, I don't have to worry about that thing anymore. It's tough when you get into trouble like that, and you learn a lot in your life. You try to stay away from trouble. Last year, I couldn't concentrate. I didn't want to think about it, but I was always thinking about it. Now, my mind is pure."
There's really no sense trying to ascertain whether Simon was innocent or just managed to successfully navigate the murky waters of the Dominican judicial system. The case is closed, and he can finally focus entirely on baseball.
Whether that will allow him — at 30 — to establish himself as a consistently productive major league pitcher remains to be seen, but getting the full benefit of both good health and spring training can't hurt.
"That's something to take into consideration," manager Buck Showalter said. "He has a lot of things working for him that he didn't have working for him in the past. I just want the challenge for him to be the competition and not some of the other things he has had to deal with.
"He's doing well. He has come in in better shape than I've seen him in the past. I'd like to think he's also in a different spot mentally. He's been through a lot, and, hopefully, he'll tell you some of it is self-inflicted."
The competition for spots on the Orioles' Opening Day roster is going to be intense. The club opened spring training with 29 pitchers in camp and at least 12 candidates for the starting rotation. Simon is out of minor league options, so he's either going to make the team or get a chance somewhere else.
"There are so many guys competing here, I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "Last year, I just tried to keep my head up and work hard. Right now, I don't have nothing in my head. I was in trouble last year, but this year, my mind is clear."
He has yet to prove that he can harness that big arm and pitch consistently at the major league level, but there is still enough upside potential there that one National League scout identified him late last year as one of just three available Orioles players of interest to his team.
Pitching coach Rick Adair said Monday that Simon has as much raw talent as just about anybody in camp.
"Absolutely, he's a guy — if you look at the overall package — he's one of the top three or four guys in terms of velocity and movement," Adair said. "He's just not as consistent as you want him to be. He's in the mix, and he's competing."
Whatever happens, it's sure to be more pleasant than what was happening a year ago at this time.
"He's got a shot at redemption," Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "That's always a good story."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun